It’s been a pivotal few months for Marouane Fellaini, and in order to explain why that is, it helps to look towards Hollywood. A few years ago, when Matthew McConaughey put together a run of spectacular performances, the film world heralded the Texan’s surge towards greatness, dubbing it “the McConaissance.” McConaughey, who had been known mainly for his parts in high-profile comedies, was suddenly the centrepiece of some of the big screen’s most worthy and serious dramas. McConaughey, reflecting on this transcendent period of his career, admitted himself to be bemused by much of the attention, and credited it simply to going back to basics and doing what he was best at.
It’s not clear whether Fellaini is a fan of McConaughey’s films, but his career seems to have experienced a similar rebirth — if you will pardon the pun, and even if you will not, he is having a Marouanaissance. When he was signed by David Moyes, he unfairly became an emblem of the Scotsman’s pragmatic, defensive approach, and his style of play appeared at odds with Manchester United’s tradition of swift, skillful attacking football. It did not help that he was the sole arrival that transfer window, as opposed to one of several — had he been signed alongside, say, a couple of wide forwards, many supporters would have been reassured that United were not abandoning their swashbuckling roots. Fellaini also arrived at Old Trafford at the worst possible time, coming into a team without a clearly defined playing style and in which he thus had no clear role. Moyes’ sole season in charge of United was brutal, and Fellaini’s first season at United was little better.
It seems a minor miracle, then, that he is entering his sixth season at the club. Some might say that this is a reflection of United’s uncertain recruitment policy, but the strong and opposing argument is that he has played a vital role under each manager for club and country over that time. Fellaini, it must be noted, was crucial as Belgium defeated Brazil at the 2018 World Cup, seeing off a side whom many had considered to be favourites to win the entire tournament.
There is more to Fellaini than brawn — in fact, it may even be that this is an attribute that, in the past, he has not quite used often enough. At times, he has appeared awkward and angular rather than robust, but in recent seasons he has become far better at channelling his aggression. He has also grown more confident in his passing, which is perhaps the most marked improvement in his play.
When he joined United, he was most often found rolling the ball square, apparently deferring — perhaps understandably at times — to the much more expansive approach of Michael Carrick. Now, though, he is more often found nudging and driving the ball through the lines into the feet of his forwards, and since he has been deployed in a midfield three — a far better fit for his talents, given his comparative lack of speed — he has looked far more comfortable. It is even arguable on present form that he deserves to be included ahead of Nemanja Matic, with the usually dependable Serbia international a couple of levels below his best of late.
Fellaini’s future at United is secure for the next couple of years, and it is a sign of his increased prestige that his contract renewal made a great deal of sense. In time, he could complement Fred — a more dynamic passer, who has less defensive discipline — extremely well, having handled his compatriot Neymar so impressively at the World Cup. He can also point to a fairly satisfactory trophy cabinet — he has claimed an FA Cup, an English League Cup and a Europa League in his time at Old Trafford, which though perhaps less than United supporters might expect from their club is more than was expected of Fellaini when he arrived.
When all is said and done, can Fellaini claim to be an elite defensive midfielder? All things considered, he is a notch below those in that category — players such as Sergio Busquets and N’Golo Kante, who not only snuff out attacks but initiate plenty of their own. Yet what Fellaini has proven for both club and country is that he can be superbly disruptive and decisive against elite opposition, and that is why, in the possibly difficult months to come, he will be an essential asset for Mourinho. That fact is due to both his diligence and his resilience, and it is a fact of which he should thus be very proud.